Ben Hur
Director: Cecil B. DeMille

BEN HUR. 1959
Director: William Wyler

EL CID. 1961
Director: Anthony Mann

Director: George Stevens

Director: Orson Welles

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

Director: Ted Post

Director: Richard Fleischer

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

The Ten CommandmentsCharlton Heston as a young man had been a lefty who in 1963 marched with Martin Luther King. But when you can muscle into the upper ranks of a movement on account of celebrity rather than work & commitment, it frequently turns out that anything not earned is not valued. Thus it was easy for Heston to shift about as far to the far right as can be fathomed.

As an actor Heston had a real impact on my life, thrilling me & entertaining me at just about every stage from childhood to teen years to adulthood. So I was particularly discouraged & even a little angry when he became an out-there-on-the-fringe political nutjob. He was not just out there as a gun advocate, which would've been all right even if I disagreed with some of it, but became a speaker for white supremacy.

In 1999 I reported on the NRA's more extremist attributes & how Heston entered the fray. The second ammendment speaks of the right to form militias & though the NRA was founded & long dominated by Democrats, this began to change by the late 1950s. It was not anti gun control until the 1960s, & as years ticked by, the NRA became more & more alligned with white power militias.

I speak of the leadership who directed lobbying activity & selected the guests of honors for national conventions; the larger & largely silent membership still believed in the rights of hunters not the rights to form militias & advocate race wars.

Who were these racists, anti-American militiamen, & white supremecists in charge of the NRA? There's no end of examples. Wayne Stump has not only served on board of NRA but also published his own insane conspiracy journal Operation Vampire Killer & founded a racist anti-immigration organization trying to stop Spanish from being taught in school systems.

Or Leroy Pyle when not advocating for NRA was busy in the racist Illinois Militia, on the list of organizations most apt to bomb federal buildings. Extremist T.J. Johnston was on the NRA board & headed "safety instruction" for NRA as a method of first-contact with the public who might not come if it was overtly admitted to be an opportunity for mind-melds with an instructor who was just as busy organizing a white racist militia in California, the Orange County Corp, all NRA members.

Jeff Cooper who wrote an influential column for Guns & Ammo always pumping NRA politics called black people "Oragutangs" & put his own hairy-knuckled paw-prints in all kinds of racist crap. He preached, "If our 18th Century ancestors had not been sexist, racist, & violent, our nation would not exist."

This kind of man was a natural for leadership in the NRA. Did the Board ever take steps to get rid of a man representing the NRA in extremist racist ways? Quite the opposite. Cooper was lauded for having the guts to say out loud that gun violence kills more young black men than white men, so only one in ten deaths is a loss to society, the white one. Guys like NRA member Timothy McVeigh would seem to be his ideal. Cooper recommended encouraging more black on black gun violence & giving them all the ammunition they need for the larger social good.

Larry Pratt joined forces with Aryan Nations in 1992 & together with leaders of sundry racist militias arranged honors for white separatist Randy Weaver (who I regard as the most soulful racist in America, whose rights were indeed trampled in the worst possible way by our government, but that doesn't make supporting racists a good idea). Pratt & his racist militia chums buddied it up a long while, even at the biggest militia event of the time, the Dallas Preparedness Expo. Bob Dole publicly criticized Pratt for his continuous & ongoing association with racists & antisemites.

Pratt quite rightly called the NRA "a good friend," & in 1995 lauded the NRA for finally giving up the nonsense about the second amendment being about recreation, thanking the NRA for taking increasingly hardline stances about arming against "anti-christ jews & black people created before Adam & therefore less than human." He said this while he was the guest of honor at an NRA conference in Colorado!

Also feted that weekend was Pratt's buddy, Aryan Nations chieftain Richard Butler. A tiny moderate contingent was upset by the NRA making superstars out of Pratt & Butler whose ardent gun advocacy was specifically for the coming race war to kill blacks and jews. These moderates were shouted down by the vast majority of the NRA members in attendance. The vast majority!

In the same way when nutjob flying saucer cultists or Scientologists get spitting mad when the facts of their "belief" system are aired, so too NRA members go into full denial mode when the simplest facts of their leadership are revealed. They don't try to repair that leadership. They just continue to claim that an organization run by white supremecists & militiamen isn't at its very core a white supremacist lobby, not a nice little club for decent gun owners.

Around this time, near the end of the '90s, out of love for his work in cinema, I preferred to believe Heston was not actually part of all that, but alas, he was. Here's what I wrote at the time, when I still believed Heston wanted to stop NRA's white racist agenda & return the organization to a more American Pie style of gun advocacy such as the NRA represented before the 1960s:

"The Fortune Alliance is an ultra-right fundraising organization that runs ponsy schemes on the world wide web & has offices in Western Washington cities, including near where I live. The operators are chums with Alan Gottleib who used to live here in Seattle running the Young Americans For Freedom. He's also well-known as a fundraiser for the National Rifle Association, & similar allegedly above-board even if right-wing organizations, though closer looks reveal all these groups have racist militia connections.

The Ten Commandments"So no surprise Gottleib also had connections with fundraising for such pipebomb brigades as the Militia of Washington, as his belief in the right to bear arms extends to making bombs in your basement with which to kill niggers & kikes.

"His association with militias & racist churches is one of the things that presumedly induced Charlton 'Moses' Heston to run for NRA office -- to help clean up the NRA's willingness to associate itself with archly racist militias, not because he agreed with that wicked stuff.

"Gottleib was a founding member of the super-secret ultra-conservative Council for National Policy Council (Jerry Falwell & Oliver North are among the outed members) which has powerful tentacles in some of the highest reaches of Republicanism -- enough to make anyone justifiably paranoid & probably not paranoid enough.

"Gottleib claimed to have over 100 members of Congress serving in his NPC including at one time senators Dole & Trench, though they would not personally cop to it. Of course Gottleib simultaneously claims the whole government is run by antigun commies & queers so he's not the best representative for facts regarding his own achievement.

"The feds have been frustrated putting the bastard in jail because hate speech is legal; but they've gone after his fund-raising for militias, for anti-environmentalism groups, & other ultra-right organizations. He's brilliant at direct mail scams but adverse to paying taxes, rendering his activities as a fundraiser for the far right illegal. He's now officially on the ever-expanding 'convicted felon' list of rightwingers, laid low by tactics formerly associated with putting gangsters out of business."

In 1999 I still wanted to believe Heston was an decent man whether or not he spoke out in favor of the right. I wanted to believe he was seriously appalled that his favorite gun-advocacy organization had alligned itself with white superemicists at every bend, the organization having completely abandoned it's Dixiecrat days that lasted into the 1950s when the NRA spoke out stridently against such militias & deplored the KKK, the same KKK whose granddragons would in decades to follow call the NRA their friends.

Alas, I was wrong, & Charlton really had entered this cracker arena as a full-fledged racist cracker. He gave what appears to have been his first over-the-top white supremay speech in 1997. Eventually I had to face reality. I had no choice but to think of the man as Chuckles the Cracker King.

Touch of EvilMy favorite quote from Chuckles's infamous speech was this one: "Heaven help the god-fearing law-abiding Caucasion middle class Protestant, evangelical Christian, heterosexual, NRA-card-carrying, male working stiff." No more of this crap about the NRA being for families or for hunters with rifles.

Rather, in Heston's mind, the NRA was a boy's club with an ill-inscribed "no gurlz aloud" sign hanging on the door. No girls, no queers, no papists, no muslims of course, just white guys who are the one or two types of Christians Chuckles approves of. Big reminder that the one place you're guaranteed to find 100% Christians is a Ku Klux Klan rally.

He made his white supremacist remarks to the ultra-right Free Congress Organization, assuring white supremecists that niggers, queers, & even papists have been targetted by what Chuckles called the NRA's "no-holds-barred culture war" as he called it, exclusively for straight white Protestants & Evangelicals. And I call them "ultra-right" not to insult but to distinguish them from conservatives who may be to the right of my thinking but are not raging fruitcake crackers.

"Mainstream America is counting on you to draw your swords & fight," Heston exclaimed, stridently advocating the swords in particular be thrust into the breasts of feminists, the "homosexual coalition," lesbian mothers, and "blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with the other."

The audience was a closed choir & the rest of us weren't supposed to find out what a crazed white supremacist Heston had become. To the general public he was there to get the white supremacists out of the NRA's upper echelons & return the organization to its roots advocating for hunters & funding gun safety workshops for kids & moms. But all along he was there to stop the march of equality for all races & religions & sexual orientations before it was too late for America.

Advocacy of armed white protestants warring against people of color, agains gays, even against straight women who wander too far from the kitchen, who aren't evangelicals, sounded really cheerful in company of just his buddies. But the message escaped the choir; it reached Mainstream America which was horrified to be defined by Charlton Heston in such clear terms of race war & gender war with guns, cannons, & swords lauded at every corner of his lecture.

Ben HurChuckles even called Sarah Brady, whose husband stopped a bullet for Ronald Regan, a gestapo nazi, like she was advocating a warfare against non-protestant non-whites the way he had just done.

Putting Chuckles in charge meant there was not exactly an intelligence at ›work at the NRA. Of course, Heston was willing to admit he stayed drunk for 30 years, a classic bubba lucky he didn't accidentally murder his own beloved wife playing with guns while stoked with whisky. You can lose a lot of brain cells from 30 years of non-stop boozing. Could that help explain his transition from supporter of Martin Luther King to advocate for sticking swords in black people for seeking "privileges"?

And then in 2003 Heston made his public confession that he was suffering from alzheimers. Ronald Reagon was in the throes of dementia while serving as president, a figurehead for his entire second term who slept through meetings where earth-shattering decisions were made by underlings.

I'll never forget Grampa Ronny's rambling brain-addled "I was driving down the California highway" string of non-sequitors that led nowhere until the moderator, horrified, asked him to stop. This was during one of the presidential debates that were a prelude to his second term. He was overtly & obviously no longer fit to run the country, but the voters strangely decided otherwise. When years later he couldn't even recognize his own shoes, denials evaporated, & seriously, no one was surprised.

So, too, Charlton Heston, the actor I'd adored from childhood on, was brain-addled. What a lovely excuse to forgive him for his hate-speech against people of color, against gays, & non-protestant non-evangelical peoples everywhere, against whom in his addled haze he longed to launch a culture war complete with cannons, guns, & swords, & get the women too.

This nice man who stuck with one wife for sixty years & really did have a pleasant chuckle can be forgiven because he was a drunkard suffering the first stages of senile dementia when he began to support some of the craziest racist bastards in America. It's not like racists need anyone intelligent to be their fearless leader.

Well, maybe I kid myself, but today as I sit to record my thoughts about Charlton Heston, a day after his death, I do posit senility as the overriding factor in his advocacy of war against blacks, faggots & dykes inclusive of straight feminists, & non-protestants en masse, because it's just too awful that I should ever have loved an actor capable of such depth of hatred while in his right mind.

The Ten CommandmentsI was too little so I can't be absolutely certain what was the first film I saw Heston in. But I think it must've been The Ten Commandments (1956) which was, at least, the first film I ever saw in downtown Seattle.

My Yakama Indian grampa worked as a grounds-keeper at a drive-in theater so we saw free movies all the time from the backseat of grampa's old Chevy. There was no reason to go downtown Seattle for anything.

But there was a film revival on a big screen -- I believe it was at the Paramount, the biggest cinema palace imaginable, but might've been at the now vanished art deco Coloseum -- & grampa's family crammed into the car & headed off to see it as movies were meant to be seen, on overwhelmingly large screens.

The Ten CommandmentsI've seen it many times since & each time think it isn't apt to impress me this time, but every time I see it, I do end up in that childhood place of wonder.

It's just a splendid film. And though Heston himself says he didn't have to be able to act to stand in front of those special FX, raise the staff of Moses, & speak those awe-inspiring lines, fact is, everything about it was at risk of inducing laughter.

His own skill made it seem real & vital & unworthy of even the slightest snigger, but only of gazing at the screen with dropped jaw & wide eyes.

Ben HurI first saw Ben Hur (1959) when I was nine years old, & the character who made the strongest impression on me at that tender age was, oddly enough, Sam Jaffe's role as Simonides the slave of the family of Hur.

In later viewings I was to realize his role wasn't dominant after all, but it was no a bad thing that as an adult I realized it was actually a love story between the Jew Ben Hur played by Heston, & the Roman Massala played specifically by Stephen Boyd as a spurned lover.

With Gore Vidal -- and even Christopher Fry -- working without credit on repairing & revising Turnberg's wishywashy script, a homosexual subtext to the whole tale of Ben Hur was inescapable. Nor is it missing from Lew Wallace's original story, since of the many crimes of Rome, Wallace would have homosexuality be just one more element of decadence.

Ben HurBut the most overt portion of the script was not with faggoty Quintus who made ben-Hur his portected "lad." Rather, in terms of overt cinematic content the greater homosexual subtext was with Messala (Stephen Boyd).

Heston is on record denying there's anything to this. But Gore wrote the scenes, talked over Heston's likely response with Wyler, who in turn instructed Stephen to play the character as a lover spurned. Chuck was never told of this & so really does play the role oblivious to Messala's desire.

When Messala & Ben Hur are getting along, the symbol of their manly love for one another is two rigid spears above the doorway going "sproi-oi-oing!" It's so funny that no matter how obvious Gore, Stephen, & Billy got with all this, Chuck never did catch on. But once you realize what author, Boyd, & director were doing, you can't help but shake your head at the unsubtle obviousness of it all.

The pageantry & heroism of the thing was just incredible, not just big scenes like the chariot race, but moments such as when Ben, without regard for his own health, descends into the leper colony to recover his mother & sister, just heroic stuff through & through.

I loved the hell out of it. And though seeing it recently it didn't have quite the full hold on me as The Ten Commandments still can, I even so find it powerful. And once again scenes that would've been only the highest of high camp played by most any other actor, Heston plays it in such a way as to permit the viewer to be wholly engulfed in the ancient world & completely believe in everything we see.

El CidHeston had been one of those actors I would go out of my way to see in anything, old or new, & in the 1970s & early '80s, there were revival houses galore in Seattle, & I could see just about any film he was in at any point in his career, & see it on a theater screen.

Not every historical epic he made was a good film of course. I remember watching El Cid (1961) in a sparkling new print with a sophisticated film-going crowd at the Egyptian Theater on Capitol Hill. It was based on a national epic about the medieval Spanish hero Rodrigo Diaz, a more than worthy subject for a mighty film epic.

I'm sure everyone in that sold-out audience wanted to believe in the adventure on the screen. But it just wasn't possible, & the romance between Heston as El Cid & Sophia Loren as the ill-named Jemima was only good for audience laughter. Anthony Mann is sometimes a very fine director, & I can't imagine what went so horribly, horribly wrong.

GreatestI always like a female swordfight in a film, but Sophia Loren in a broadsword fight was as hard to take seriously as everything else in the film.

Indeed, El Cid is a case study of how ridiculous even Ben Hur could've been with less skillful people in charge, & I guess it contradicts my general sense that Heston can make potentially campy material seem real. Nothing could save El Cid from turkeydom, not even that well-chiselled face.

After innumerable failed scenes & sequences, Rodrigo in the end rides off to win the battle, strapped to his horse & already stone dead. The audience I saw it with was in stitches.

Worse, there's a long coda with the corpse of our hero riding victorious again & again across the stage. The music rose to underscore the greatness of the event, & there was hardly a moment for anyone to catch a breath from laughing so hard.

Touch of EvilOr consider The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). It's not a bad film but it's boring. The only time it sprang to life was when Heston popped up as John the Baptist, played with a troglodyte fervor sufficient to render religious freakishness noble.

While the Baptist's story was unfolding, the film was alive. But if I challenged a roomful of people who remember liking this movie to name the star who played Jesus, I bet none of 'em could, though it was in fact a great actor. Ten minutes of Charlton Heston makes a bigger impression than two-plus butt-killing hours of Max Von Sydow bringing salvation to the world.

Most assuredly not everything he did was a Mighty Epic. In a strange creepy film noir, Touch of Evil (1958), he managed to hold his own as an actor alongside Orson Welles who played a very bad cop.

Which is not to say the walnut lacquer he stained his skin with in order to play Mexican didn't look damned silly. Nor was the film a great one due to its story, which barely makes any sense. Still, alongside a crazily overacting Orson, Chuck comes off as subtle. It's a great film if only for its amazing black & white cinematography, & because Orson gets scarier than shit.

ApesAnother important aspect of Heston's screen career from the late 1960s & early '70s was his starring roles as a science fiction hero. I was a sci-fi fan from the depths of Nurdom. If I hadn't already loved the hell out of him since I was nine years old, then his films from his Sci-Fi period would've gotten to me just as strongly.

That final shot in Planet of the Apes (1968) remains iconic, even though no one will ever again see the head & arm of the Statue of Liberty with quite the same impact it had for unprepared viewers when it was in first-run.

He would reprise the role of Taylor in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), though his appearance is brief & he's not the star.

With improved special FX it was actually a better looking film as science fiction per se, but had much less of an emotional connection with the audience. The revelation of the subterranean bomb cult wasn't as good a story, & the notion that Ape & Man are waging warfare in the Forbidden Zone isn't as great an idea as when the first film shows humanity reduced to speechless animals, closer to what the chimpanzees had been in Earth's former ecology.

And pretty much replacing Heston with mere television star Tony Franciosa wasn't a good idea at all. Yet it was a slick piece of s-f for its time, & better designed than most that would follow.

The popularity of these two films, & the outright excellence of the first one, launched three more sequels for a total of five feature films, plus telefilms, all these without Heston's presence. He'd created a fad. When attempting to view the films today, only the first with its Rod Serling script can be taken seriously, but they are all enjoyable.

Soylent GreenOmega Man (1971) crucifies its hero splendidly, & Heston brings a credible spark of romance to the action role of the last uninfected man on Earth.

Soylent Green (1973), a fable of unchecked populartion growth, projects a credible dystopia in a future with no remaining natural environment, & a tragic subplot played out by Edward G. Robinson.

Heston plays a future-cop trying to solve a murder which takes him down a spiral of discovery about the world he lives in, & he's not prepared to face the truth. On some levels it's a precursor to Blade Runner (1982).

If Heston's climactic upraised arm & cry of "Soylent Green is people!" was accidentally comical even in 1973, it didn't spoil the fact that this was a pretty cool movie for its day, & still not bad.

More films could be named as having at least charmed & in some cases inspired me. I never agreed with the common assessment of Heston as a screen presence rather than an actor. I think he was both. Otherwise Fabio would make a good Moses, John the Baptist, or Ben Hur, capturing the same conviction. Just try to picture that without giggling.

Today my forgiveness has got to be complete, as I don't want to think ill of the dead. I forgive his having been a political crackpot of the first layer of hate-mongering. And I will enjoy his films again & again as years tick by, without regarding them as guilty pleasures. That's his legacy, not his sundry bigotries that render him a little more unfortunate than he need otherwise have been.

copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl

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